How to Plant an Orchard on a Hill

Sometimes the eye can trick us into thinking that something is not exactly as it appears. When I bought my house, the hill in the backyard looked like a pleasant slope into a flat area that ended in an attractive creek. Walking up and down the hill begin to shed light on exactly how steep it actually was, but it wasn’t until having to haul rocks up the daunting slope or manage a lawnmower that we realized exactly how much of a problem the area is. Our hill appreared completely unusable. My daughter couldn’t throw a softball in the area. We couldn’t host picnics on it. It seeded just a large expanse of very unusable space.

My husband and I began to brainstorm the best use for the area. Eventually we’d love never to mow the hill again. Our goal is to transform our quarter-acre property in suburbia into a food forest. What could we do with our hill that would be in line with both of those goals?

Our obvious solution was to plant an orchard on the hill. (You may have first read about our orchard in my homesteading post here.) The trees and future guilds should at least reduce the amount we have to mow, and the fruit will provide food for our family.

Two strapping lads planting fruit trees.
Two strapping lads planting fruit trees.

How to Save Money on Fruit Trees

The budget to plant our orchard on the hill was tight, and we researched several options. We ended up saving a significant amount of money on our fruit trees, but it was completely by accident.

I visited the local nursery one day in early March and inquired when they would have their fruit trees in stock. I was informed that bare root trees are the most cost-effective way to go as they would save us almost half versus buying potted trees. The only drawback is that they have to be put into the ground immediately so they don’t dry out.

The following week the nursery owner called to let me know the trees were in. The nursery purchases bare root trees for ease of transport and to save investment costs. They pot the trees themselves and then sell potted trees later in the spring. We were offered the trees with bare roots (meaning they had no pot, soil or bagged root ball) at a significant discount. Six dwarf varieties came home with me.

Luci standing next to a freshly planted fruit tree.

Planting the Orchard on the Hill

That night my husband rounded up two of our strapping boys (at the time aged 17 and 20) and two shovels. We plotted out where we wanted the trees to go. The nursery owner recommended planting the trees at least twenty feet apart to give them enough room to grow. You will want your trees to be close enough for easy cross-pollination but never touching so that funguses and disease cannot be easily spread from one tree to another.

The boys dug the holes and then added some well-rotted compost to each hole. This provided nourishment for our baby trees. Then my husband and I held the trees in place while the boys filled the holes in.

Another benefit of bare root trees is that the root ball was small enough not to require a giant hole and extra digging. Finally, we filled the holes in with soil, watered each tree well and mulched around the trunk with grass clippings.

When all trees had been planted, we decided that we had room for two more. The next day I went back to the nursery and purchased two additional trees, and we planted them that night following the same process.

Here are the Varieties we Ended Up With:

  • 2 Granny Smith apple
  • 2 Montmorency cherry
  • 2 Reliance peach
  • 2 Stanley Plum

Tips for Growing Young Fruit Trees

I can’t stress enough how much more successful your gardens, orchards and landscaping will be if you develop a good relationship with a reputable and trustworthy local nursery. If you’re in northern Kentucky, I love Baeten’s in Union, who only carry plant varieties that grow successfully in our growing zone. You can find your growing zone here.

The nursery owner gave us several tips to help plant our orchard on the hill.

  • Add compost to the hole you’re digging to add extra nutrients to the soil.
  • When pruning, remove any tiny limbs that are too small to hold fruit. This will allow the plant to focus energy on main branch growth. Always use clean pruning shears to avoid contamination.
  • Remove any fruit for the first year or two as soon as it’s large enough to weigh down a branch. This will keep your branches from drooping or becoming deformed.
  • Fruit trees should be planted in full sun, meaning a minimum of six hours of direct sunlight per day.
  • Be mindful of grown tree sizes. We chose only “dwarf” varieties that are appropriate for a small backyard. We have no way of safely picking fruit that is more than ten feet high so we will prune our trees accordingly.
  • Choose fruit trees that self pollinate or companion plant trees that will cross pollinate.
  • Plant your trees at the correct depth to encourage growth and avoid rot.
  • Mulch after planting, but don’t allow the mulch to touch the trunk to discourage rotting.
  • Protect young trees from local wildlife by wrapping the trunks. Deer and rabbits can be devastating to a young orchard. We plan on planting guilds around our trees later this summer.
How to plant an orchard on an unusable hill.

Enjoying the Fruits of our Labor

I’m very happy with our little fruit trees so far. We were able to turn a useless part of our yard into a practical orchard that will provide food for our family. The trees are lovely and will continue to make our yard more attractive as they grow. I can’t wait to share updates and fruit preserving recipes with you as our orchard matures.

Do you have fruit trees in your yard? Please share your tips with me in the comments!

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